Saturday, April 02, 2005

Onorato spars with critic over assessments

Onorato barks for state help - PG article Onorato repeated his plans to lobby the state Legislature in Harrisburg to make assessments revenue neutral.

Onorato needs the help of the state. So much for self-reliance.

The barking from Onorato should switch away from the stance of being "revenue neutral" and to "assessment buffering." To the home owner and tax-payer -- being revenue neutral throughout the entire county is meaningless. To the taxpayers, having assessment buffering means the world.

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Onorato spars with critic over assessments

Saturday, April 02, 2005

By Jerome L. Sherman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato sparred yesterday with a Carnegie Mellon University professor over how best to confront the county's recurring problems with property assessments.

On TV -- KD/PG Sunday Edition will be broadcast at 11:30 a.m. tomorrow morning on KDKA.

During a taping of "KD/PG Sunday Edition," Robert Strauss, a professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon, suggested that Onorato's decision to put a 4 percent cap on property assessment increases is politically motivated, a charge the chief executive hotly denied.

"In theory, I understand the argument that you want to do an annual reassessment and try to get the market value," Onorato said. "I don't live in that theoretical world."

He argued that the 2006 assessment numbers would hurt Allegheny County's ability to compete with neighboring counties.

"I live in a county that's been reassessed three times in five years. I live in a county where the counties bordering me haven't reassessed in 30 or 40 years," he said.

Onorato first proposed the cap in February, after announcing that almost 80 percent of the county's property owners would see assessment increases if he released the 2006 values without making any changes. Last month, County Council approved and Onorato signed legislation that will place the new property values in six categories: reduction, no change, and increases of 1, 2, 3, or 4 percent.

Strauss, who has written academic papers about assessments, said Allegheny County ultimately would benefit by making more of an effort to develop a fair system for regularly assessing property values.

"Virtue is its own reward," he said. If Onorato's administration can build a better system, "then businesses and people will locate in Allegheny County because it's a better place to live."

Strauss proposed introducing an elected assessor, a position that would take some political scrutiny away from the chief executive's office, which currently appoints the county's chief assessment officer. He also held up Cleveland and Cincinnati as urban areas that have more success with generating accurate property values.

Those comparisons are not useful, Onorato countered.

"I don't live in Cincinnati," he said. "I live in southwestern Pennsylvania, and I'm competing with counties around me."

Onorato repeated his plans to lobby the state Legislature in Harrisburg to make assessments revenue neutral.

Currently, state law allows taxing bodies to earn a 5 percent windfall when property values rise following a reassessment. Onorato argues that many school districts and municipalities in Allegheny County would take advantage of that limit if he sent out the 2006 property values without a cap.

"If I release these numbers right now, 80 percent of the property owners in Allegheny County would see their tax bill go up, not just their assessments," he said. "I can't allow that to happen."

(Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at or 412-263-1183.)